Extremism in Pursuit of Kyoto
The only thing
extreme about the misguided notion that weather and climate are becoming more extreme is
that notion's popularity among the mass media, vice presidents, and those campaigning
to the left of vice presidents.
Devastating drought one week. Major hurricanes the next. This season has been a
fearmonger's dream. Nevermind record crop yields across the majority of
America's farmland that is not among the mere 2.2 percent of the country that
experienced extreme drought.
This is not top secret. In fact, WCR Chief Editor Patrick Michaels told Fox News
recently that the much-ballyhooed "Drought of 1999" was highly localized and
noted that nationally, precipitation was actually above normal. After which Fox suddenly
decided not to air the interview.
Climate is not becoming more extreme. Ken Kunkel, Roger Pielke Jr., and Stanley
Changnon recently completed a comprehensive review of extreme weather in the United
States. They used a two-pronged approach. First, they looked for trends in
losses/damage/casualties from the weather event in question; then they determined if the
physical measures were changing in the same manner. For example, if the strength or
frequency of landfalling hurricanes has been steady but hurricane losses are going through
the roof (no pun intended), this is not a global warming problem, it's a
too-many-people-making-too-much-money-and-buying-beachfront-property problem! The only way
to put a stop to this fiscal independence and prosperity is to implement some taxing
vehicle like the Kyoto Protocol.
All it takes is a little logic, a few facts, and a willingness on the part of the media
to stop telling people what they think we want to hear. Which will make for some slow news
days indeed. For the record, here's the scoop on all your favorite weather and
Loss of life from hurricanes has decreased since the beginning of this century, but
damage has increased tremendously. Since World War II (when hurricane records are most
reliable), the number of landfalling hurricanes has declined, while the intensity has been
steady. After "normalizing" for inflation, income, and coastal population,
tropical cyclones are actually having less impact now than they did in earlier parts of
the century (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Hurricane damage costs, 1930 to present (in 1995
dollars). After "normalizing" for inflation, income, and coastal
population, tropical cyclones are actually having less impact now than they did in
earlier parts of this century.
Though they are essential rain-producers in most of the United States, thunderstorms
are responsible for 45 percent of all weather-related losses to insured property. Using
the insurance industry definition of a "catastrophe" (an event causing at least
$5 million in losses), Kunkel compared catastrophic losses with thunderstorm days for
five-year periods across the nation (Figure 2). "Catastrophes" are going
upbut thunderstorms are steady. According to the authors, "The curves suggest
that the increase in catastrophes and the losses they represent over time are not a result
of shifts in thunderstorm conditions but rather a function of other factors such as
increasing population and the associated property at risk to such events." It's
that too-much-money thing again.
Figure 2. Catastrophic ($5 million-plus) losses vs. thunderstorm
days for five-year periods across the United States. Catastrophes are going
upbut thunderstorms are steady.
There are 20 to 25 hail-induced catastrophes every five years. Hail lossesmainly
to cropsin the United States have remained steady (when expressed in terms of annual
losses per five-year period) since 1950. Again, no trend.
Let's see if you've been paying attention. Fill in the blanks: The number
of deaths from tornadoes is going [up/down] while the number of tornadoes observed is
going [up/down]. If you said "down" and "up" then you could have a
promising future as a climatologist! That's rightwe're finding a lot more
of 'em and we're gettin' outta the way faster.
Kunkel cited a study by WCR Associate Editor Robert Davis and colleagues noting
an increase in the number of severe Atlantic coastal storms. Winter storms
(nor'easters) have been more common along the eastern seaboard, and damage has
increased significantly in the 1990s. But consider the global warming angle: A key
ingredient in the formation of major nor'easters is a strong temperature contrast
along the southeastern coast. In other words, the colder the air in place over the
mid-Atlantic and South, the stronger the storm. "Global warming" has allegedly warmed
the high latitudes in winter, so it's hard to associate the increase in storm
intensity with pernicious industrial activity.
Heat waves and mortality
About 10 years ago, Kalkstein and Davis evaluated summer and winter mortality by
identifying "threshold temperatures" for each major city. This is the
temperature beyond which mortality tends to increase significantly. Based on these
thresholds, Kunkel calculated threshold exceedences and the number of four-day heat waves
per station (Figure 3). Aside from the occasional peak, there is no trend, and the 1930s
stand out as a very hot period. There is likewise no trend in low temperature exceedences
and cold spells (Figure 4).
Figure 3. Heat waves, 1930 to present. Aside from the
occasional peak, there is no heat wave trend; the 1930s stand out as a very hot period.
Figure 4. Cold waves, 1930 to present. No trend exists in low
temperature exceedences and cold spells.
The silver lining
In general, losses related to weather have indeed peaked in the 1990s in the United
States. But they have not been accompanied by increases in the intensity or frequencies of
the events themselves. Writes Kunkel:
"The results of the review strongly suggest that the increasing
financial losses from weather extremes are primarily due to a variety of societal changes.
These include population growth along the coasts and in large cities, an overall increased
population, more wealth and expensive holdings subject to damage, and lifestyle and
demographic changes exposing lives and property to greater risk."
None of this should be surprising. As people make more money they buy more things and
the country makes/imports/ transports/sells more things, which in turn fuels the economy.
To protect their things, people buy more insurance to make certain they recover their
losses should foul weather strike. This is simple, as long as the government stays out of
the weather insurance business. There's neither the need, nor the factual basis, to
blame global warming for increased damage costs.
Kunkel, K.E., et al., Temporal fluctuations in weather and climate extremes that cause
economic and human health impacts: A review, Bulletin of the American Meteorological
Society, 80, 10771098.
Davis, R.E., et al, 1993, Synoptic climatology of Atlantic coast northeasters. International
Journal of Climatology, 13, 171189.
Kalkstein, L.S., and R.E. Davis, 1989, Weather and human mortality: An evaluation of
demographic and inter-regional responses in the U.S. Annals of the American Association
of Geographers, 79, 464.